By Philip Newman
Mayor Bloomberg’s staff has been discussing a Metropolitan Transportation Authority takeover of heavily subsidized Queens private bus lines as a way of cutting costs at a time of tight money, a mayoral spokesman said.
“The objective of these discussions has been to explore the possibilities of reducing the cost of this service while improving it,” said Jordan Borowitz, a spokesman for the mayor.
Borowitz said such discussions had been going on intermittently over the past few weeks.
The Independent Budget Office, a politically nonpartisan agency, said the subsidies paid by New York City to the private bus companies has reached $110 million a year from $86 million in 1999. A $5 billion budget deficit has brought the private bus subsidies along with many other such costs under a spotlight.
An IBO report also said that while service provided by the seven private bus companies has improved, their buses are chronically late and fall short when it comes to cleanliness.
The fares on the private company buses cover 44 percent of the cost of a ride compared to 48 percent on New York City Transit buses and subways.
The City Charter approved by voters in 1989 called for new agreements between the bus companies and the city by the end of 1992, but the city has continually extended the deadline — now the end of 2003.
“Current contracts provide few incentives for companies to achieve lower operating costs,” the IBO report said.
“Private buses perform reasonably well on most established measures of service quality, but the on-time performance of the private buses on local routes has consistently fallen short of the established standard,” it said.
Passengers have long complained of crowding on the private lines.
Alternatives to extending existing franchises with the same companies include modifying the existing agreements to emphasize performance standards and providing greater incentives for cost savings, opening the routes to competitive bidding, including bids by NYC Transit and a direct takeover by the MTA.
The situation could be complicated by settlement of labor negotiations now in progress at some of the private bus companies.
The New York City Department of Transportation has contracts with Green Lines, Triboro Coach, Jamaica Bus Co., Command Bus Co., Queens Surface Corp., Liberty Bus Lines and New York Bus Co. They serve an estimated 400,000 riders in Queens.
The companies operate 82 routes, including 44 local routes in Queens, two in Brooklyn and 36 express routes connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens.
Drivers and mechanics at three of the companies, Queens Surface Corp., Triboro Coach and Jamaica Buses, walked off the job twice this year after working without a contract for more than 14 months.
Further action was deterred in late March when the companies and the Transport Workers Union Local 100 struck a tentative deal, which was to hinge on the City Council protecting the workers’ jobs and pension benefits when the companies’ city contracts went out to bid.
Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 136.